Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Physician 'Steel' Thyself

Donato Altomare, engr. C. Biendi,  from
 "Biografia degli uomini illustri del regno di Napoli,"
In sixteenth century Europe, it was not easy being a physician if your philosophy of medicine deviated from the norm. In those days, the 'norm' was to treat all diseases solely based on elementary properties or "humors" as they were called. Successful treatment, according to theory, depended on the restoration of balance between the four humors which were in turn associated with air, water, earth and fire. For example, symptoms including a burning fever called for the diametrically opposite treatment from chills. Sometimes these procedures worked, other times not so much. These principles were very old; they had been established centuries earlier in the writings of Hippocrates and Galen and the wisdom of the ancients was not generally questioned. The medical establishment was locked into these concepts and to deviate was to risk severe criticism from one’s professional peers. 

An early maverick was one-time mining physician Paracelsus. Today he is known as a pioneer of sorts; he focused his attention on practical solutions that worked in the field rather than on dogmatic theories. He insisted on basing his treatment, not blindly on a set of rules, but on close observation of his patients and of nature. Increasingly, his peers considered him a dangerous crackpot and a liability for his unorthodox treatments. He spent the last part of his life running from one town to another, trying desperately to stay ahead of his detractors. The fact that he was also outspoken about his belief of an impending apocalypse did not help his case. He died in 1541 and his ideas about chemistry and medicine did not start to gain traction until about fifty years later, when among others, alchemists Antonio Neri and his sponsor Prince Don Antonio de' Medici became devotees.

Paracelsus is an extreme example, and perhaps the best known, but he was far from alone in a rising tide of debate about the nature of disease. A much lesser known example, one that peripherally involved Neri's own father was that of Neapolitan physician Donato Altomare who was a university professor in the middle of the sixteenth century. He was hounded out of Naples and forced to relocate in Rome after favoring the opinions of leading Arab physicians over established theory, but philosophically, he was still very much in the mainstream of promoting the ideas of Galen and Hippocrates. The old ideology was held so tightly, that even a slight deviation could leave a career in ruins. Ultimately, Altomare found favor with fellow Neapolitan Pope Paul IV, rehabilitated his reputation and was allowed to return to his hometown, but criticism persisted. One of his most vocal detractors was a classmate of his own son, named Salvo Sclano. 

In 1585, a book on a variety of topics in medical theory was published by one of the leading doctors, Antonio Alvarez, personal physician to the Viceroy of Naples. In Epistolarum et Consiliorum Medicinalium pars prima, he invited a number of well-respected peers to contribute chapters in the form of letters. The book is most noted for the final chapter in which Alvarez mounts a spirited defense of the above-mentioned Donato Altomare and against his nemesis Sclano.

Antonio Neri's father has a detailed chapter in Alvarez's book. Neri Neri was the personal physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando de' Medici. In his piece, he wrote on the treatment of what was known as "left side paralysis," usually the result of a stroke, which often left patients physically debilitated and unable to speak. This same malady befell a close Neri family friend in the 1560's. Poet and historian Lodovico Domenichi spent the end of his life unable to speak, but still attended by his best friend, Antonio's grandfather, Jacopo Neri. The medical problem was correctly identified as originating in the brain, but the prescribed treatment was, shall we say, less than optimal by current standards. An incision was made in the rear of the patient's head at the base of the skull. Wires or small beads were inserted to keep the wound open. The theory was that deep pathogens were drawn out of the body, as evidenced by the large discharge of puss that resulted. 

The fact that Neri Neri contributed to the book is an indication that he was in sympathy with Alvarez's defense of Altomare. It is interesting that while he was quietly championing the minor revision of  main-stream Galenic medicine, his son Antonio would go on to champion the far more radical teachings of Paracelsus. While the majority of Antonio's writings deal with medical cures, nowhere does he discuss the theory of "humors" or Galenic medicine, although he also does not speak out against it. In his own quiet way, Antonio Neri was helping to sever ties to the old ways of medical practice. In the future, the emphasis of medical science would be squarely focused on careful observation of nature.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Neighbors Reprise


"Portrait of Giamologna"by Hendrick Goltzius
In Florence, directly across the street from the Palazzo Neri, where glassmaker Antonio Neri spent his youth (now the Marzichi-Lenzi), was the residence and workshop of famed sculptor Giambologna. This two-building compound was a 'gift' to the artist from the newly crowned Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici, in 1587. It was intended to settle debts incurred over the artist's work for the previous grand duke, Francesco. The dwelling, at 26 Borgo Pinti, was located on the same street that was formerly inhabited by the likes of Michelangelo, Perugino, Pontormo and Cellini.

Neri's father, the royal physician, had collected art. According to historian Giovanni Cinelli, in 1677, when Antonio Neri's nephew owned the property, among the pieces in the house were:

Two small bronze horses by Giambologna, many works of [Simone] Pignoni and others, among which are two marvelous holdings; a waist-up Ecce Homo by Titian and a Satyr of beautiful ancient bronze which is wonderfully captivating; it is of the Greek manner and expresses an attitude of prompt movement that recalls liveliness, the muscles are very well prepared. Finally, a statue of Cupid flanked in marble in the best Greek style.
Giambologna had a strong influence on Florentine art and his work was to be found throughout the city, from the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, to the gardens of the Casino di San Marco, where Neri made glass. The sculptor was well known for the fine surface finishes he achieved on marble and for his ability to resolve the technical challenges of portraying multiple figures, especially those involving a complex intertwining of limbs and bodies. The Rape of the Sabine Women, completed when Neri was a boy, is considered his crowning achievement.

Giambologna was born in Douai, Flanders, now in France, as Jean Boulogne. He landed in Florence in 1553, after a period working in Rome for Pope Pius IV among others. The Medici never allowed him to leave Tuscany for fear that once out of their reach, he would be enticed to go to work for another of the European sovereigns, never to return. It is reasonable to speculate that before his own trip to Flanders in 1604, Antonio Neri offered to relay messages or other effects to the family of his seventy-five year old former neighbor. Neri spent seven years with his friend Emmanuel Ximenes in Antwerp. Before his return to Tuscany, in 1611, both Grand Duke Ferdinando and Giambologna had already gone to meet their maker.


Neri had left Florence in his twenties, and returned in his thirties to a very different city. He settled down to write the book for which he will forever be remembered, L'Arte Vetraria, the first printed book devoted to the formulation of glass.

This post first appeared here on 20 Sept. 2013.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Francesco and Bianca

The remains of Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici
The story of Antonio Neri weaves together closely with that of a Medici prince also named Antonio. The prince was six months younger, living quite a different life, yet holding many of the same interests. Don Antonio de' Medici was the eldest and only surviving son of the second grand duke of Tuscany. He became both Neri's employer and his benefactor. Don Antonio's own fascination with nature's secrets ran in his blood, a fascination that preceded him by at least four generations. His father Francesco and his grandfather Cosimo, both grand dukes of Tuscany, avidly pursued the vagaries of natural secrets. Cosimo had picked up the interest of alchemy from the notebooks of his own paternal grandmother, Caterina Sforza, as preserved by his father, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. Don Antonio would carry on the family passion working in the laboratory built by his father on the north side of Florence, called the Casino di San Marco. Shortly after the prince settled in, priest Antonio Neri came to work in the Casino laboratory and there learned the craft of glass formulation. 

By the time Don Antonio dusted off the cobwebs at the Casino and restarted the laboratory there in his early twenties, he had already experienced more than his share of misfortune. At the age of eleven, his life was suddenly changed forever when he lost both parents. Among many other implications, it meant relinquishing his future as grand duke of Tuscany to his uncle Ferdinando. Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici had been visiting his brother, Grand Duke Francesco and his wife Bianca when they both became violently ill and died within days of each other in the fall of 1587. It was no secret that the brothers had running quarrels on a variety of matters from the cardinal's allowance to the way Francesco was running Tuscany. It was also no secret that Cardinal Ferdinando strongly disapproved of his older brother's wife, Bianca Cappello. She had earlier been the duke's mistress; they married in secret shortly after Grand Duchess Giovanna died in pregnancy. 

As soon as Francesco and Bianca's deaths were made public, rumors began to fly that the cause was poison in their food and not pernicious malaria, as pronounced by Ferdinando's own two doctors, Cini and Da Barga. Related rumors claimed that Don Antonio was an illegitimate child, or adopted, or even the product of witchcraft, none of which hurt Ferdinando's case for succeeding his brother as grand duke. The narrative was that Ferdinando had made a ruthless power grab, assassinating his brother and sister-in-law; it was a narrative that spread and gained momentum over the years, fueled by careless researchers and Victorian era romanticism. In some nineteenth and twentieth century history books, it was reported as all but fact. The poisoning of Ferdinando and Bianca has been the subject of theatrical productions, novels, poetry, paintings and a musical composition. Admittedly, it does have all the elements of a great story: Marriage for love in the aristocracy, sex, murder, intrigue, politics and religion. Truth be told, given the Medici family’s actual history, the story is not all that far-fetched, but it turns out not to be true, at least as far as modern forensics technology can determine.

 Controversy erupted in 2007 when a team from the University of Florence reported that they had unearthed what they presumed to be the long-lost (but partial) remains of Grand Duchess Bianca. Testing revealed a significant level of arsenic, leading some to give assassination another look. Others pointed out that arsenic was commonly used as an embalming preservative in this period. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Pisa confirmed that there are malaria pathogens in what are not disputed to be Francesco's remains, interred at the Chapel of Princes in Florence. 

Ferdinando's two physicians, Giulio Cini and Giulio Angeli da Barga, who were on the scene in October of 1587, reported that symptoms were identical in both patients. Modern forensics pathologists agree that those symptoms are entirely consistent with pernicious malaria. Furthermore, it was recorded that a few days earlier, Francesco and Bianca had ventured into a swampy area on a walk near the estate where they met their end. In fact, Francesco had lost two younger brothers and his mother to malaria, and I can personally vouch that Tuscan mosquitoes are nasty little creatures. If not for an insect bite, Don Antonio might well have become the third grand duke. As it was, Ferdinando took the reigns of power and Antonio Neri's father was appointed to be the new grand duke's royal physician, with Cini and da Barga his assistants.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Don Giovanni in Flanders

Spanish attack on a Flemish village,
Attr:  Pieter Snayers.
In the winter of 1603-04, Glassmaker Antonio Neri embarked on what would become a seven-year-long visit to Antwerp, possibly the most productive period of his career. He was to stay with his Portuguese friend, Emmanuel Ximenes, one of the richest men in that city. But Neri was not the only Florentine courtier in Antwerp; Don Giovanni de' Medici, Florence's top military commander was already there, prosecuting a war. He was uncle and friend to Neri's sponsor Don Antonio, as well as an alchemist in his own right. There is no known record of a meeting, but it is not hard to imagine Giovanni as a dinner guest at the Ximenes household.


Neri had moved from the safety of the Tuscan hills into the very center of a bloody war for Dutch independence. The Dutch wanted freedom from Spain, which was allied with the Holy Roman Empire through a single ruling family: the Habsburgs. Within the previous thirty years, Antwerp had been burned and pillaged by Spanish soldiers that had gone unpaid. The carnage cemented a regional rebellion that would last for most of a century. The northern territory, known as the Dutch Republic, had seceded from Hapsburg rule in 1581. As Neri started his journey in late 1603, the Southern territory was caught in the middle between warring factions. The North had become a haven for protestant Calvinists and Lutherans who streamed in from surrounding countries. Catholic Antwerp was near the center of the conflict. The city was blocked from sea-trade by their Dutch neighbors. Armed confrontations with imperial troops from the south demolished surrounding towns; fighting threatened to spill into the city that Neri would call home.

The troops on both sides of this conflict were not monolithic armies, but patchworks of borrowed forces and paid mercenaries. On the imperial side, an early attempt to break the blockade had been under the command of Don Giovanni de' Medici on behalf of his half-brother, Tuscan Grand Duke Ferdinando. Florence owed its allegiance to the Habsburgs. Don Giovanni was anxious to secure Catholic Flanders for Spain and secure a military success for himself. However, in truth, the situation was more nuanced. The Medici were privately sympathetic to the Dutch cause. They were friendly with the French Bourbons as well as the English who were both secretly financing the Dutch resistance, neither of whom wanted to see a strong imperial presence in the Low Lands. Flemish Catholics themselves lost no love for their Spanish overlords, who had already destroyed Antwerp once. In 1604, Don Giovanni was back to help prosecute the siege of Ostend, under Don Ambrogio Spinola. This was a conflict so bloody that it ultimately leveled the city and took the lives of thirty-five thousand men. Ostend was the last remaining stronghold of the Dutch on the North Sea coast between Sluys and Nieuport. It was only sixty miles (95km) west of Antwerp.

As bloody as it was, war in the seventeenth century followed the seasons. In the winter, Don Giovanni found time to submit a design for the Chapel of Princes in Florence. He also had Flemish marble cut for the project, and shipped back to Tuscany using, yes, Dutch traders in Amsterdam. During the lull in fighting, at the behest of Grand Duke Ferdinando he commissioned paintings of famous contemporary battle scenes by Flemish masters, which were also shipped back to Florence on Dutch ships. One set of seventeen pictures, fully paid for by the Ximenes family, was destined to hang in the new Medici villa 'La Ferdinanda' at Artemino in Prato. The interior decoration of the public spaces in this villa were being executed by artists Passignano and Poccetti, fresh from their recently completed collaborative masterpieces; the Neri Chapel and Cestello church on Borgo Pinti, financed by Neri's father. After some delay, the paintings finally shipped to Livorno in April of 1604, just as Antonio Neri was settling into his new quarters on the most fashionable street in all of Antwerp; the Meir.

By June of 1605, fighting was on Antwerp’s doorstep, Don Giovanni de' Medici was dispatched to London. He saw the King (James I) several times, but the reception was somewhat less enthusiastic than he had hoped (at least according to reports home by the Venetian ambassador). Three weeks later Giovanni left for Paris with the promise of a royal ship to bring him across from Dover to Calais. Finding no such escort, he commissioned a Dutch captain for the voyage.  

Don Giovanni's behavior, at first blush, seems quite odd; perhaps even treasonous. Commanding troops under the Spanish flag, he left the front lines at Antwerp, and using enemy (Dutch) transportation, he traveled first to the English and then the French royal court, both powers recently at war with Spain. However, Giovanni was in constant contact with Grand Duke Ferdinando and undoubtedly acted on direct instructions. While technically subjects of the Spanish crown, the Tuscan duchy had close economic and strategic ties with all the countries involved and had every reason to pursue a diplomatic solution that would avoid another bloodbath in Antwerp. A few years earlier, Giovanni had successfully stalled the Spanish infantry from a potentially devastating invasion of France and had military experience in the Low Countries that spanned two decades. Historically, Giovanni's part in any diplomatic negotiations has not been established, but within two years, a temporary truce was reached that would eventually result in Dutch independence. In April of 1607, a temporary eight month ceasefire was negotiated, which was later extended to cover conflicts at sea.

Monday, July 21, 2014

True Colors Reprise

The European Roller [Pica Marina]
Antonio Neri's book, L'Arte Vetraria, is devoted to making glass from raw ingredients found in nature. Many of his finished creations were intended to also resemble the natural world. A number of colors are meant to mimic the appearance of gems and minerals, others are named after plants and animals. Some are easily recognized today, even if they are not as familiar as they were in the seventeenth century. One of his recipes will make "a wonderful pimpernel green," while others evoke peach and orange blossoms. An entire section of the book is focused on paints that are named after the flowers from which the colors are extracted. Many of these plants have remained common: poppies, irises, violets, lilies, carnations and red roses. Others are less so: the mallow, pomegranate, broom and borage flowers.

In addition to flora, the fauna make a few notable appearances in Neri's book. In chapter 16, in the preparation of iron oxide pigments, he advises that after fifteen days in the furnace, the product will be finished when it takes on the purple color of the peacock. In chapter 73 he gives a method for "tinting rock crystal the color of a viper" and chapter 121 is the method for a glass which is "red like blood."

Named in several chapters is a shade of 'celestial blue,' which Neri likens to the color of the "gazzera marina." Common bird names pose a special challenge for translation in that they, like the birds themselves, never seem to settle in space or time for very long. Vernacular names of a species can change from one century to the next, one region to another, even between adjacent valleys and several species can share the same name. It is with this admonition that we attempt to flush out the elusive gazzera marina.

Consulting a modern Italian dictionary draws the eye to the similar sounding 'gazza marina' (alca torda), known in English as the razorbill. This sea bird inhabits coastal cliffs, but alas, as a close relative of the penguin, it dons only black and white formal attire. Digging deeper we find poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, "At Dawn" carefully tracking the gazzera marina across a salty marsh, in his Halcyon. This time the poet himself throws us off the trail with his description, since no bird sports five digits but the chicken. Turning to etymology, we find another potential match in the magpie (pica pica); it is a credible but unconvincing fit with its blue and white plumage.
Aldrovandi's pica marina
Combing the references of Neri's own sixteenth century, we find the best candidate is the roller (pica marina). This bird was described by naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, a friend of Don Antonio de' Medici's father and guest at the Casino di San Marco. Other contemporary authors list the gazzera marina as a synonym to Aldrovandi's pica marina. Neri's Latin translator Frisius (1668) and his German translator Geissler (1678) agreed, both sighting the "Pica Marina" in their works.

This post first appeared here on 13 Sept 2013.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hugger-mugger

Ottavio Scarlattini, "Triumphator"
from Homo et ejus partes, 

figuratus & symbolicus... 1695, p. 320.
In the early seventeenth century, when Florentine alchemist Antonio Neri was busily making glass, there was a fundamental change afoot in the thinking about nature and how it works. Throughout the Renaissance a great deal of effort was spent recovering ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman texts. It was widely recognized that much of the technology and learning of those civilizations had been lost or forgotten in the intervening millennium. One need not look any further than the great architectural monuments left behind; structures like the Roman Pantheon that Renaissance architects marveled at and had difficulty in matching. These were an ever present reminder at how far the state of technical knowledge had slipped. As a result, attentions focused on looking back to the past for answers, but in the mid-sixteenth century a new philosophy of ‘experimentalism’ started to take hold. 

Some of the ancient traditions, like the Aristotelian four element model (earth, water, air, fire) were disappointing in their failure to predict outcomes of new work in chemistry and medicine. The time was ripe for change and in certain circles new models came into favor like those of Paracelsus. He based his theories of chemistry and medicine on empirical experience – what actually works as opposed to what the ancient authorities Galen or Dioscorides said should work. Galileo studied actual falling masses and pendulums to lay new foundation for physics. A lively debate argued the merits of learning about nature by direct observation. 

A general term used to describe the areas of study where the principles were not immediately evident was “occult.” Today, the word has come to mean supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena. But in the early seventeenth century the connotation was different. The entry in John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary reads, “Occulto: in hugger-mugger, hid, privie, that is not knowne, very secret, to lurke, to cover, to hide cleane that nothing be seene.” In other words, the occult dealt with hidden knowledge and experimentalists aimed to uncover it by careful, direct observation. 

It was in this environment that Antonio Neri came of age in Florence. From letters to his friend Emmanuel Ximenes, it is clear that he tried many variations before settling on a particular glass recipe: experimentalism at its best. While the empirical approach was a vast improvement over blind acceptance of dogma, it was no panacea. A repeatable formula was a valuable asset, but it did not guarantee understanding, or that correct conclusions would be formed about what was actually going on. “Occult,” it turns out was a very apt description of the realms beyond human understanding, because invariably these realms involve processes of nature that are outside of our direct perception; hidden as it were. 

Today, empirical evidence remains the gold standard of scientific investigation, from small chemistry laboratories to giant particle accelerators which probe the subatomic realm; a repeatable experiment is the first step to understanding a bit more about nature’s “hidden” ways. One striking difference between seventeenth century efforts and those of the present is the great array of instruments we have developed to extend our senses into the “hidden” realms of nature. Antonio Neri relied on his eyes, ears, nose, tongue and fingers as instrumentation and in all likelihood this played a part in his death at the age of thirty-eight. We have the luxury of technological gadgetry which both extends our perceptions and at the same time shields us from the potentially toxic effects of the materials in nature’s playground. It is a tough playground, and we are relatively small, imperfect creatures, but it is the only world we have; we might as well try to understand it.   

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Portland Vase

The Portland Vase, British Museum.
284 years ago this past weekend, (12 July 1730) marks the birth of Charles Darwin's grandfather, English potter Josiah Wedgewood. He founded the company that still bears his name, a name that has become synonymous with the iconic blue with white bas-relief cameo-themed jasperware pottery.  

What is less well known is that the style was developed over several years by Wedgewood in an attempt to copy a particular ancient glass object, now called the Portland Vase. This piece was and still is regarded by many as the pinnacle of ancient glass art. The vase was made around the time of the birth of Christ and shortly after the invention of glassblowing. A dark, cobalt blue vase was blown and then coated in a second thin layer of white glass. The piece was then carefully sculpted, probably by a gem carver, by grinding the white over-coat glass into various mythological scenes. The figures stand on dark blue ground that was revealed by completely grinding away areas of white, leaving only the under-layer. 
Wedgwood's Sydney Cove Medallion

What is especially revered by aficionados, and gave Wedgewood the most trouble in replicating, is the delicate carving of the white glass. The figures depicted around the vase in various scenes are not monochromatic, but expertly shadowed just like a fine painting. This was achieved by grinding the white glass so thin that the dark blue under-layer starts to show through, making gradations of lighter and darker features. A face or a hand was shaded by making the white glass slightly thinner on shadowed areas. Wedgewood's solution was to subtlety tint the white clay he used, which was then applied to a blue clay vessel and fired in a kiln. One of his early successes, owned by Darwin, can be viewed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Today the original Portland Vase can be viewed at the British Museum where it has taken a place of pride almost since the museum’s inception. A series of unfortunate accidents and one act of intentional destruction have broken the vase several times, but it has been painstakingly pieced back together and restored so that cracks are minimized. One of these events occurred during the Roman Empire, when the bottom of the vase was replace by a circular medallion of the same style cameo glass. In modern times, the vase was the subject of a nineteenth century contest, with a prize of 1000 pounds, to make an accurate reproduction in glass. The winners of that contest were glass blower Philip Pargeter and engraver John Northwood. Their piece is on display in the Corning Museum of Glass in New York.

The vase was uncovered in the late sixteenth century during an excavation, when the hunt for ancient tombs around Rome was in full swing. It was presumably used as a funerary urn in what, at the time was thought be the tomb of Emperor Alexander Severus. It's first owner after discovery was none other than Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, patron of the arts, alchemist, glass collector and Medici family confidant, of whom I have written here before. The cardinal was a lifelong advisor to Don Antonio de' Medici, who was in turn, the patron of glassmaker Antonio Neri. There is every chance that Neri and Del Monte knew each other, although no such record has yet been found. Del Monte is known to have visited the Casino di San Marco in Florence at the time that Neri was making glass there and Neri is conjectured to have visited Rome a couple of years earlier. 

If Neri the priest was ever granted audience with the cardinal in Rome at his main residence, the Palazzo Madama (now occupied by the Italian Senate), it is easy to imagine a tour of the cardinal’s extensive glass collection, which he displayed in a special room dedicated to the purpose. Such a tour would not be complete without an examination of what would become the most famous piece of glass in history, the Portland Vase, by the man who would become the most famous glassmaker in history, Antonio Neri. "Go ahead, take it – hold it up to the light."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Glass Monks Reprise

Window of  Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral,
Florence, Italy.
In Florence, at the very end of the street on which Antonio Neri spent his youth, Borgo Pinti, was the residence and estate of the Archbishop. Beyond were the city walls and the enormous wooden doors of the Porta Pinti gate (115 foot, or 35 meters tall). Just on the other side of the gate, which in Neri’s time was normally closed and guarded, once stood the San Giusto alle Mura monastery, built in the thirteenth century. Despite the similar name, there is no connection between the Ingesuati monks of San Giusto and the modern order known as the Jesuits, which was not formed until 1534 and recognized by the Church in 1540.

The monks at San Giusto were famous for the stained glass windows they made; hence one of numerous theories that the name 'Pinti' may be a contraction of 'dipinti 'or 'dipintori' (paintings or painters). Using their own glass furnaces, the Ingesuati monks provided windows for the Neri family's church Cestello and for Santa Maria del Fiore among other churches. They also ran an art school and were famous for making the color pigments used by painters, producing a coveted ultramarine blue. Their customers included the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Del Sarto, Ghirlandaio and Filippo Lippi. 

Apparently, the Ingesuati's artistic devotion was not matched by their religious observance. In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari recalls the less than complimentary sentiments of the monk's own in-house chaplain, a certain Servite monk named Fra Martino. He notes that the monks do not read Mass, and that they, "do nothing but say paternosters ['our Father...'], make glass windows, distill herbs for sweet waters, dig their gardens, and perform other works of similar kind, but do not study or cultivate letters."

Antonio Neri has a slightly more positive opinion about the value of stained glass windows. In the introduction to L'Arte Vetraria, he waxes poetic: 
Glass is also a great ornament to God's churches since, among other things, many beautiful windows are made, adorned with graceful paintings, in which the metallic colors are so intense and vivid that they seem like so many oriental gems. 
The windows that inspired these lines may well have been made by monks of San Giusto. As a child, Antonio Neri had seen the striking windows in Cestello and in the city cathedral. It would be nice to be able to connect him to the Ingesuati, but in 1529, long before his birth, their entire complex just outside the Pinti Gate was dismantled in defensive preparation for the siege of Florence. The Florentine military cleared away the structures near the outside of the city walls. The monks of San Giusto alle Mura moved to the much smaller Calza Convent on the oltrarno, on the opposite side of town near the Porta Romana gate. They did not rebuild the glassworks at the new location and it is doubtful that any of the glass workers would have still been alive by the time Antonio Neri came of age.

This post first appeared here in a slightly shorter form on 30 September 2013.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Material of All Enamel

Léonard Limosin, Allegory of Catherine de' Medici as Juno,
French, 1573, Polychrome enamel  on copper and silver.
In L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri's recipe book on glassmaking, he devotes the sixth chapter to making enamel. For Neri, this was a tinted form of opaque glass favored by jewelers and goldsmiths. The material was ground into a fine powder, added to a binder and painted onto glass or metals, usually copper, gold or silver. Once dry, the item was fired over a flame or in a kiln so the enamel would fuse to form a durable glossy coating. Talented workers could use various colors to paint entire scenes.
“We see ornate enameled metals in many colors and they make a pleasant and noble sight; they entice others to look and take notice.”
Neri begins by showing how to produce what he calls “the material to make all enamels.” This is a neutral-white base to which he then adds various metal oxide pigments to produce color.

He starts by mixing together thirty pounds of pure lead and thirty-three pounds of pure tin, both in a finely divided state. He heats them in a low temperature kiln that has a wide, accessible hearth. He roasts or "calcines" the metals, raking the powders around with special iron tools for many hours. This has the effect of oxidizing the metals without melting them.

He sifts the mixture and boils it in a kettle of pure clean water. The kettle is removed from the heat and the contents are allowed to settle for a while. The water is then carefully poured off, carrying with it only the finest particles still in suspension. This liquid is saved, while the sediment at the bottom of the kettle is sent back for reprocessing in the kiln. He repeats the "decanting" procedure many times, and then carefully evaporates the accumulated liquid over a low fire. What remains is an extremely fine powdered tin and lead oxide mixture.

Neri tells us that fifty pounds of this oxide is to be mixed with an equal weight of powdered cristallo frit. Cristallo was the coveted glass perfected by the Venetians on the island of Murano. "Frit" is the granulated glass before it is put into the furnace and melted. The recipe for cristallo had remained a state secret for over a century. It was the clearest, finest glass that money could buy and items made from it commanded top dollar among the richest families in Europe. Even after production methods became known to outsiders, Venice still controlled many of the raw materials through exclusive trade agreements around the Mediterranean. Neri was first to actually publish the recipes for making cristallo, in this very same book. It was made with pure white quartz pebbles from Pavia, mixed with purified salts derived from the Levantine kali plant, and decolorized with manganese from Piedmont.

In order to complete the enamel base material, Neri adds eight ounces of white tartar salt (made from the dregs of wine), sifts the mix and carefully heats it in terracotta pots for ten hours. The result is ground again and stored in a in a dry place, in a sealed container for future use.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to coloring this enamel base material; he always starts with a batch of either four or six pounds. He uses a large furnace pot to melt the enamel because even though the amount is relatively small, some of the pigments cause the batch to froth and swell violently. After adding the pigments, he lets the glass cook for a while, adjusts the color as necessary and then "washes" it several times. In this process, he throws ladlefuls of molten glass from the furnace-pot into large vats of cold clean water. The effect is to remove excess plant salts from the glass, which would ultimately foul the enamel. Finally, he forms the glass into individual dollops of about five ounces each; a size to which the goldsmiths were accustomed.

For green enamel, Neri uses copper and iron oxides in various proportions, for blues he uses "zaffer," which is a cobalt oxide. He mixes green and blue pigments to obtain turquoise colors. Manganese produced a red wine color, for yellow, he adds the unrefined dregs of red wine (potassium) with a pinch of manganese. Violet is a mix of manganese and copper oxides.

Finally, a word to the wise: Do not attempt to duplicate these recipes; fine lead powder is dangerous enough, molten lead enamel will evolve fumes that cause heavy metal poisoning. Remember that Antonio Neri was dead by age thirty-eight.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Exhibit Review: Art and Alchemy

François Marius Granet, The Alchemist
On our recent trip to Europe, Lori and I made a special stop in Düsseldorf, Germany to see the Art and Alchemy exhibit at the Museum Kunstpalast. Little did we realize just how much of a treat was in store. The museum website boldly proclaims that the show spans "all epochs and genres" displaying "250 works from antiquity to the present, encompassing Baroque art, Surrealism, through to contemporary art from collections and museums in the USA, Great Britain, France, Mexico and Israel" (not to mention other work from Germany, Poland, The Netherlands, Sweden and Italy). I am happy to report that the curators not only deliver on their promise, but they do it in an expansive, elegant, well-arranged series of galleries that will appeal to virtually any audience. I am trying hard here not to be too effusive, but my goodness, what a fine collection of eye-candy. 

As one with a long-standing interest in the subjects of both art and alchemy, after years of straining at small photographic reproductions in books, it was a joy to stand before so many of the originals in their full glory. Here we find one after another of the iconic images of alchemists at work in their studios. Rendered by the Brugels (younger and elder), Cranach, Teniers, Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens; all brought together in a tribute to the chemical arts. And then to turn around and find the Ripley scrolls, third century Egyptian papyri, and my personal favorite, the Treasure of the World manuscript by Antonio Neri, which I have so often highlighted in this blog. Then there is more, much more. There are coins, vessels, symbolic objects, glassware both ornamental and scientific, an assembled wunderkammer—a room filled with exotic curiosities of nature, a concept that is actually the forerunner of the modern museum. In homage to "The Great Work" of transforming base metal into gold, the exhibit winds visitors down a literal alchemical path, punctuated by displays of objects that symbolized or were created using alchemical technology. If there is any criticism to be made here, and it is minor, it might be the under-representation of the interaction between alchemy and religion.

We broke for lunch in the museum's pleasant atrium café and then embarked on the second half of the exhibit. We moved from the mysterious pensive darkness of the alchemist's realm of the first gallery space into the bright psychologically transformative space of the second gallery. Here we explored the influences of alchemy on modern art and culture, from the philosophical and psychological connections made by Carl Jung, to the surrealist movement, through to works by Duchamp, Ernst, Brauner, Klein, Kapoor and then by contemporary artists Rebecca Horn, Richard Meitner and Helmut Schweitzer. 

Only in the past two decades has alchemy started to enjoy the recognition it deserves for its broad influence on art and on the crafts. Even ten years ago an exhibit like Art and Alchemy might have been met with total puzzlement. Now there is a more general understanding among academics, historians and the public of the role alchemy played in chemistry, medicine, metallurgy, but also in the transformational aspects of art. Visual artists enjoy a unique relationship with alchemy that has deep roots, one that still may not be fully appreciated. A thoughtful visitor will find connections to explore at every turn of this exhibit. Anish Kapor evokes primary emotion with shaped mounds of pure pigment. Yves Klein also explores the realm of highly saturated individual pigments. The pieces reference alchemy on several different levels. For centuries, artists have prepared their own color pigments which required alchemical techniques or even direct dealing with alchemists. At the same time, the act of transformation and of replicating nature is fundamental to both disciplines, art and alchemy. The symbology of alchemists also has provided artists with rich sources of thematic inspiration, which is highlighted wonderfully in the selections. We particularly liked the dazzling Chymical Nuptials by Max Ernst. 

Art and Alchemy takes us on the journey that starts with the ancient transformation of raw materials and progresses to the contemporary transformation of human sensibility. It is the story of how we have learned to physically interact with natural materials and represent that interaction to ourselves. The curators have taken a certain calculated risk that the public will respond to such an ambitious project, to which I say thank you very much. A collection of this breadth, on this subject is not likely to be assembled again for some time. You have until 10 August to take the journey. 

Art and Alchemy, The Mystery of Transformation
Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf.
5 April – 10 August 2014
(A beautiful catalog is also available, including an English version while they last).

Monday, July 7, 2014

Flexible Glass Reprise

Tiberius, Third Roman Emperor
(42 BCE - 37 CE)
In the introduction to his L'Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri relates the legend of flexible glass. First century historian Pliny and others had already recorded their versions for posterity. Neri writes:
Still others hold that in the time of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, a way of making glass malleable was invented; a thing that was subsequently lost and today is hidden to all. Indeed if such a thing were to be known today, without any doubt it would be more valued than silver or gold for its beauty and incorruptibility, since glass does not give rise to rust or taste or smell or any other adverse quality. 

In Pliny's telling, the hapless artisan was executed on the spot. His workshop was destroyed to prevent the devaluation of the emperor's copper, silver and gold. Consider that this story emerges coincident with the technical development of glassblowing. For the first time in history, artisans could form cups, plates and a variety of glass vessels directly with an iron blowpipe, quickly and inexpensively. Now, glass was available to the masses at affordable prices. The innovation represented nothing short of a revolution in technology. From turning bubbles of glass into vessels, it was perhaps not so hard to imagine that a malleable glass would be next. In this light, it is quite understandable to find a parable about glass upsetting the precious metals market.

We find yet another variation of the story in Richard Knolles' The General Historie of the Turkes (1621). In 1610, just as Neri was preparing to return to Florence, from Antwerp, we are told that "…among other rare presents sent to the king of Spain from the sophy of Persia there were six drinking glasses made of malleable glass so exquisitely tempered that they could not be broken." This version takes place at the same moment in history that Venetian style glassmaking skills were unleashed throughout Europe and just as new trade deals were being formed in the Mid East. Glass was again rattling the balance of economic power.

In the 1697 translation of Neri by Blancourt, the story is embellished with a new twist, the rediscovery of malleable glass in France. In the reign of King Louis XIII (the son of Marie de' Medici), a beautiful glass figure was presented to the chief minister Cardinal Richelieu. In this version of the tale, the artisan was rewarded for his efforts with life imprisonment.

The story of flexible glass, in each case, emerges in a period of economic uncertainty caused by glass technology. In each case, the parable is redressed for the times, expressing new fears about economic stability. Tiberius' worry was the invention of glassblowing, for Philip III it was the emigration of Venetian glass masters and for Cardinal Richelieu it was the nascent industrial revolution knocking on his door. Often, these stories are cited as evidence of miraculous technical achievement. Perhaps they are better understood as signposts of social and economic developments in glassmaking.


This post first appeared on 4 September 2014.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Del Monte's Ceiling

From Treasure of the World
Antonio Neri 1590-1600
In Antonio Neri's 1598-1600 manuscript Treasure of the World, one illustration shows an allegorical map in which six roads all lead to the Vatican at its center. A Latin inscription reads, "The different ways to Rome" followed by "Qui pot[est] capere capiat" which translates to 'He that can take, let him take it.' ( Matthew 19:12). This bit apparently refers to the various alchemical 'paths' leading to the philosopher’s stone, but the choice of imagery suggests that Neri spent time in the city of seven hills, although there is no direct confirmation. 

If Rome did figure in the young Neri's itinerary, a visit to Cardinal Francisco Maria Del Monte would have been de rigueur. Del Monte was the Medici's informal ambassador in Rome; a dedicated patron of the arts, amateur alchemist, collector of glass, trusted successor to Grand Duke Ferdinando in the College of Cardinals, and significantly, he was a close friend and advisor to Neri's sponsor Don Antonio since the prince's childhood.  Del Monte’s biographer Zygmunt Waźbiński offers, "It is very likely that Cardinal Del Monte, with his interest in glass, had known then (in 1598) the author of L'Arte Vetraria."  
Michelangelo Caravaggio, c. 1597
Casino Ludovisi.

As the sixteenth century ended and a new one dawned, Del Monte sheltered the rough-and-tumble painter Michelangelo Caravaggio, whom he set up with an in-house studio and an allowance. However, in 1606, the master of Realism fled Rome after reportedly murdering a waiter over a tennis wager, but not before executing his only known fresco on the ceiling of Del Monte's own alchemy laboratory. Looking out over Rome, on the panoramic Pincio, in the Villa that later became the Casino Ludovisi and is now known as the Casino dell'Aurora, Del Monte established his laboratory. According to Bellori,  Caravaggio executed the oil painting on the vaulted ceiling of the small alchemical laboratory (now a corridor) sometime between 1597 and 1600.  Depicted in the mural are the three brothers Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto: the masters of the universe. The image is a double allegory of the three basic chemical substances of Paracelsus, and the four Aristotelian elements. Jupiter with the eagle stands for sulfur and air, Neptune with the seahorse stands for mercury and water and Pluto with the three-headed dog Cerberus stands for salt and earth. Jupiter is reaching out to move the central celestial sphere in which the sun (fire) revolves around the earth.  

 The villa was a relatively secluded retreat where the Cardinal could entertain guests more discretely, including his friend Galileo–Del Monte and his older brother Guidobaldo helped land Galileo the chair of mathematics at the university in Pisa. It would be interesting to hear the astronomer’s comments on Caravaggio's tribute to heliocentrism.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Strange Bedfellows

"Brother Mauritio" detail from
Treasure of the World, Antonio Neri, f. 19r.
The fact that Antonio Neri was both a dedicated alchemist and a Catholic priest may seem a bit odd to current sensibilities. If we take a broader view and try to accommodate history, the situation can seem odder still since in Neri's time, the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, alchemists were sometimes portrayed as practicing sorcery. As far as the Church was concerned, sorcery was a heretical offence. In some quarters, the seemingly miraculous manipulations of alchemists to duplicate or even improve on materials found in the natural world were seen as tapping into divine powers. As the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, finger pointing at suspected culprits for bringing down the wrath of God was not terribly uncommon. Nevertheless, the fact is that Antonio Neri was both a priest and an alchemist, and in good standing on both counts. To understand how this could occur, we need to scratch beneath the surface of history a little deeper.

Taking an even longer view, we see that both religion and alchemy have been practiced for a very long time, since before recorded history. Both conferred cohesive benefits to society and both required the keeping and passing of secretive knowledge. In this light it becomes very reasonable that the two disciplines might be conducted by some of the same people. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, all have rich traditions of alchemy that stretch back to their beginnings. That religion and alchemy coexisted for so long is really a pragmatic issue; alchemy formed the foundation of medicine, metallurgy, the production of paints and many other arts. It was essential to even very small communities, not to mention the advent of distillation: the art of producing a good stiff drink. When a religion, any religion, was adopted into a community, the practices of the community were also adopted into the religion. From this we can infer that the ancient practices that eventually became alchemy were alive and well in the prehistoric Mediterranean tribes, in Celtic and Etruscan societies and in the Asian states long before written history. 

Now, returning to the early 1600s and Antonio Neri, many Christian orders boasted long traditions of alchemy. The Dominicans had Albertus Magnus, the Franciscans had Roger Bacon and Ramon Llull. It is true that in the fourteenth century, Pope John XXII signed a decree banning the counterfeiting of gold and silver by alchemical means, but this has often been wrongly interpreted as a general prohibition, which it was not. Nor did it stop a long line of chemical experimenters within the Church from trying their hand at gold transmutation. Monks in far-flung monasteries regularly maintained herbal gardens from which they distilled medicines and spirits, and made pigments for paints using alchemical methods. Monasteries were the repositories of knowledge and within their walls, alchemical texts were studied closely.

Neri's specific affiliation within the Church is currently unknown, although there are a few good guesses. His sponsor was Medici prince Don Antonio, who maintained a palace laboratory called the Casino di San Marco on the north side of Florence; this is where Neri worked at the beginning of his career. The laboratory was located directly across the street from one of two apothecaries maintained by the Dominicans. It is hard to imagine that there was not some kind of relationship between two facilities both practicing alchemy mere steps from each other on opposite sides of the same street. This apothecary was part of the San Marco Convent complex, which a century earlier harbored Savonarola. There are strong indications that Neri’s family was sympathetic to his reform minded agenda. 

Don Antonio held high office in the Knights of Malta, a religious military order which reported directly to the pope and had great latitude in the types of projects it pursued. The Knights of Malta ran two churches in Florence and Neri can be connected to both.  The order traces its roots to the crusades and has various associations with alchemy such as George Ripley. One legend tells that Ripley helped to finance the knights through the production of alchemical gold. The knights followed the rule of Augustine and enjoyed a close relationship with the Augustinians.

The Augustinians counted a Francesco Neri as abbot of their San Clemente monastery near the Casino. He also worked for Don Antonio de' Medici at the Casino and may have been Antonio's brother. His aunt, Faustina, apparently entered an Augustinian convent after the death of her husband. 

But there is no shortage of other possibilities; as a child, the priest's home parish church was the Benedictine San Pier Maggiore. His father was buried at a Cistercian church, his grandfather at the Franciscan cathedral. At the end of his life, Antonio Neri's confessor was a Carmelite, but also served as the parish priest of an abbey run by the Canons Regular of the Lateran. Whichever group served as his base of operations, through Antonio Neri they continued a very long tradition of alchemy practiced within the Church.